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The Difference Between Compostable and Biodegradable Packaging

Amy Lynn Voinier Blog  |  Eco Corner 3 min read
The Difference Between Compostable and Biodegradable Packaging

The terms “compostable” and “biodegradable” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Understanding the differences between these two types of packaging is essential for making informed choices that benefit the environment.

In this article, we will explore what compostable and biodegradable packaging are, how they differ, and their respective advantages and challenges.

What is Compostable Packaging?

Definition and Characteristics

Compostable packaging is designed to break down into nutrient-rich compost when disposed of in a composting environment. This type of packaging must meet specific standards, ensuring it decomposes without leaving toxic residues. Common materials for compostable packaging include cornstarch, bagasse (sugarcane fiber), and polylactic acid (PLA), which are derived from plants.

How It Works

When placed in a composting facility, compostable packaging undergoes a natural decomposition process. Microorganisms, heat, and moisture break down the material, turning it into compost. This compost can then be used to enrich soil, supporting plant growth and reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

Benefits

Compostable packaging offers several environmental benefits. It reduces waste in landfills, where traditional plastics can take hundreds of years to decompose. By breaking down into compost, it also returns valuable nutrients to the soil. Additionally, compostable materials often come from renewable resources, reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

What is Biodegradable Packaging?

Definition and Characteristics

Biodegradable packaging is designed to break down naturally over time with the help of microorganisms. Unlike compostable packaging, biodegradable packaging does not always require specific conditions to decompose. It can break down in various environments, including landfills, soil, and water. Materials used for biodegradable packaging include plant-based plastics, paper, and certain types of conventional plastics treated with additives to enhance biodegradability.

How It Works

The decomposition process for biodegradable packaging involves microorganisms that consume the material. Over time, the packaging breaks down into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. The rate of decomposition can vary widely depending on the material and environmental conditions.

Benefits

Biodegradable packaging helps reduce the accumulation of waste in landfills and the environment. Since it breaks down naturally, it lessens the impact of litter and pollution. Biodegradable options also often require less energy to produce compared to traditional plastics, resulting in lower carbon emissions.

Key Differences Between Compostable and Biodegradable Packaging

Decomposition Process

One major difference lies in how each type of packaging decomposes. Compostable packaging requires specific conditions, such as a composting facility, to break down efficiently. In contrast, biodegradable packaging can decompose in various environments, though the process may take longer.

End Product

The end product of compostable packaging is nutrient-rich compost, which benefits soil health and plant growth. Biodegradable packaging, on the other hand, breaks down into basic elements like water and carbon dioxide, without necessarily enriching the soil.

Standards and Certification

Compostable packaging must meet strict standards, such as ASTM D6400 or EN 13432, to ensure it breaks down completely and safely. Biodegradable packaging does not always have such stringent requirements, leading to variability in decomposition rates and outcomes.

Challenges and Considerations

Infrastructure Needs

Compostable packaging requires access to industrial composting facilities, which are not available everywhere. Without proper composting infrastructure, compostable packaging may not break down as intended, ending up in landfills where it decomposes more slowly.

Misleading Claims

Not all products labeled as biodegradable or compostable meet the same standards. Some biodegradable materials may take years to break down, especially in landfills where conditions are less favorable. Consumers need to be aware of these differences to make informed choices.

Cost and Availability

Both compostable and biodegradable packaging can be more expensive than traditional packaging materials. Businesses must weigh the environmental benefits against the cost and availability of these sustainable options.

Making the Right Choice

When choosing between compostable and biodegradable packaging, consider your specific needs and environmental goals. Compostable packaging is ideal for situations where you have access to composting facilities and want to contribute to soil health.

Biodegradable packaging is a good option when composting is not feasible, and you need packaging that will break down in various environments.

Conclusion

Compostable and biodegradable packaging both offer sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics. While they have distinct characteristics and benefits, understanding their differences helps you make better choices for the environment.

By choosing the right type of packaging, you can reduce waste, conserve resources, and contribute to a more sustainable future.